Jeter problem a conundrum for Yankees with no easy answer
The problem with a breakdown of the Derek Jeter situation is that just a small percentage of the story is a baseball one. Were it just about being a good enough baseball player, the answers would be easy. Jeter doesn't seem to have the skills to be a starting shortstop for a competitive team, and the case against that is largely based upon children's wishes.
Set aside Jeter's outcome line so far this year entering Thursday's game in Detroit -- his .250 batting average, his .308 OBP, his .269 SLG, his two doubles (his only extra-base hits) in 120 at-bats, even his 0-for-2 stealing bases. It's not unheard of for a good player, even a great one, to have a terrible month. The Red Sox' Carl Crawford is 29, signed a huge free-agent contract in this offseason, and is hitting even worse than Jeter is. The Marlins' Hanley Ramirez has been one of the best players in baseball for five years and is someone the Yankees might target as an eventual successor to Jeter; he's hitting worse than Jeter is. Of course, when you hit worse than Derek Jeter, you often lose your job. Of the 23 players qualified for the batting title with lower adjusted OPS (OPS+, or on-base-plus-slugging adjusted for park and league) than Jeter, one has been sent to the minors and more than half have seen their playing time affected by their performance. Jeter? He batted leadoff last night against a tough right-handed starter despite being, at best, the eighth-best player in New York's lineup. In a related story, the Yankees were shut out.
Look at how Jeter is compiling those numbers. Always a groundball hitter, Jeter has taken doing so to new and frightening extremes. In his mediocre '10, Jeter led MLB by hitting grounders on 65.7 percent of his balls in play. Just two MLB hitters were above 60 percent. For the nine complete seasons for which we have this data, Jeter's rate last season was the second-highest ever posted, behind Luis Castillo's 66.7 percent in 2007, and one of a small handful of seasons ever above 60 percent. It is unusual for any player to hit that many groundballs; it is deadly for a player who is not an extreme contact-and-speed player to do so.
This year, Jeter has hit even more groundballs: An unheard-of 71.6 percent of the balls he puts in play are on the ground. After fiddling with adjustments to his swing and then ditching them, he is in the exact same spot he was a year ago: getting beat by pitchers, even dominated. The stats aren't the point so much as the process, and the process has Jeter, a future Hall of Famer, getting the bat knocked out of his hands on a regular basis. He's not squaring up anything; Jeter doesn't have the lowest line-drive rate in the majors -- 13 players are worse -- but most of the ones behind him are swapping fly balls, and occasional extra-base hits, in for liners. Jeter is just grounding out. In fact, you might argue that his .250 average, bolstering his OPS and OPS+, is even misleading; Jeter has a high number of infield hits, which are less valuable than outfield singles because they are highly unlikey to advance a runner multiple bases and reflect good fortune as much as anything else.
This isn't the profile of a slump. Everything in Jeter's past three seasons indicates a player who is slowly losing the bat speed and reaction time necessary to hit at the major league level. This isn't about character or effort or clutch or any soft factors; pointing it out doesn't make someone a "hater," any more than pointing out defensive statistics made someone a hater about the man's defense a decade ago. This is, in fact, beyond statistics; the statistics are a reflection of things happening inside Jeter's body at a cellular level, the breakdowns of a body that we see happen to athletes over and over again. The difference between having the quick-twitch fibers and hand-eye coordination to hit major league pitching and not is vanishingly small, so small that we really cannot see it and can only grok the difference through outcomes. From 1995 to 1996, Derek Jeter crossed over that line in the good direction and stayed on the good side for 15 years. Now, he's moving back, and no amount of wishcasting is going to arrest the physical decay manifesting itself in a 70 percent groundball rate.
There was some expectation last offseason, when Jeter signed a three-year contract extension for $51 million, many times the market value of a player of his ilk, that the Yankees would eventually have to move him off shortstop to escape his declining defense. The thought that his bat would collapse didn't come up as much. Now that this has come to pass, the idea of making Jeter a third baseman, leftfielder or DH seems ridiculous; his bat is bad for a shortstop, and would be a joke at a position demanding more offense. This is, in fact, the nightmare scenario for the Yankees -- a long-term commitment to a declining icon with substantial non-performance value whose performance chips away at the team's primary goal: winning championships.
Part of the reason the Yankees signed Jeter was that they had no options they preferred. Their internal options, Ramiro Peña and Eduardo Nuñez, seemed inadequate to the task of playing shortstop -- and replacing an icon -- on a championship-caliber team. There were no free agents worth chasing, and teams had taken to locking up their great young shortstops rather than looking to trade them for prospects. The Yankee/Jeter marriage was two people getting on in life and settling for each other rather than taking the risk of being alone.
Now, the Yankees have to seriously consider their other options. Nuñez has been serving as Jeter's caddy in the early going. He was an error-prone shortstop coming through the system, and lost his role as a full-time shortstop a year ago in part because of that. He profiles more as a utility player, with very little power and mediocre command of the strike zone. If he's better than Jeter, even now, it's not by much, and the difference is entirely defensive. Peña is a very good defensive shortstop, and an even worse hitter than is Nuñez: .231 with a 658 career OPS . . . at Triple-A. He's hitting .233 and striking out in 20 percent of his at-bats at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre this year. Like Nuñez, he may be better than Jeter, but not by enough.
This is the Yankees problem in a nutshell. To replace a fading legend is one thing; to do it on the fly as he's crumbling is another. In either case, you want to make it clear that you're improving the team in doing so, and right now, that's not an option for the Yankees. They have no shortstop demonstrably superior to Jeter in a way that makes a change the obvious move. They could look around the majors for an option, but the only shortstop potentially available and clearly superior to Jeter is the Mets' Jose Reyes, who will carry a hefty price tag. Prying Stephen Drew away from the Diamondbacks would require trading one of the team's best prospects. After that, you're down to players such as Jack Wilson, and you don't replace Derek Jeter with Jack Wilson.
Jeter is going to be the Yankees shortstop for the remainder of 2011. To make that work, manager Joe Girardi is going to have to stop playing Jeter's career stat line and bat him ninth. In the Yankees' stacked lineup, batting Jeter first or second is a huge mistake, as the cost of giving him plate appearances, relative to the players around him, is extremely high. Jeter's deteriorating skill set and strong set of teammates leave just one spot for him: last. This will open up opportunities for Girardi to sacrifice with Jeter -- or for Jeter to call his own bunts -- at a place in the lineup where the tradeoff of the out isn't quite so teeth-grinding. Bunting in front of Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeria is a waste; bunting in front of Brett Gardner actually makes some sense.
For Jeter's part, he may have to modify his approach. He's always been a fairly aggressive hitter, but one with a good eye, so his walks and strikeouts have both trended high. With the struggles he's had making solid contact, he's turned to jumping at fastballs, still hasn't been able to make contact and left himself way out front on breaking stuff. It may be time for him to reverse that; instead of trying to hit the fastball, Jeter may have to work deep counts and try to get to the breaking and off-speed stuff that he can handle. The timing adjustment didn't take, but clearly he has to make some kind of trade-off -- power for contact, or adding strikeouts for power, something like that -- in an effort to find a style of hitting that will produce some kind of value. Right now, he's doing nothing but scratching out infield hits and slapping occasional outfield singles, and that's not enough for $15 million.
The happy ending here is a resurgence by Jeter that makes this article and all the ones like it seem silly. The realistic one is an acceptance of limitations by both player and team that gets them through the year, followed by a plan for the remainder of Jeter's contract that involves him moving to a secondary role. In the short term, though, these two are stuck with each other.